Back in Chicago’s Andersonville Neighborhood

It’s Christmastime, and I’m back in my old Chicago home. This is a city of neighborhoods, and the old Swedish community of Andersonville was the last neighborhood I lived in when I lived in this city. The year I got divorced, I lived here: working on my master’s degree, writing at the Kopi Cafe, taking the Red Line into downtown to work, either as a tour guide or as a deckhand on the tall ships that set off from Navy Pier. That was over nine years ago.

But I think it says something about my love for the neighborhood that it was the first place I took my traveling companion, who had never been to Chicago before.

Lindsay Davis, expert traveler.

Lindsay Davis is new to traveling, but has taken to it like a duck to whatever ducks do. Earlier this year, having barely stepped outside the borders of the United States, she took off for a four and a half month jaunt around Southeast Asia. By herself. That’s impressive. But seeing as how she comes from temperate climates I wasn’t sure how she would take to a Chicago winter. Fortunately, it snowed on the first day, which led to her jumping up and down in the snow as it collected on the sidewalks while screaming, “It’s so fluffy!”

Andersonville, as I mentioned, is an old Swedish community. It makes up part of a larger district known as Edgewater, which extends to Lake Michigan, where the old Edgewater Beach Hotel, where my grandmother used to go dancing, stands lookout over the waters.

The Swedish parts of Andersonville are still there. There’s a big Swedish flag painted on a water tower. There’s the Swedish-American Museum. Swedish Restaurants and bars like Simon’s and Ann Sather. And my personal favorite spot for breakfast, Cafe Svea.

Potatoes, Swedish sausage and eggs on the left. Swedish pancakes with lingonberries on the right.

I took Lindsay here first, because if you’re going to walk around a city notorious for its winters you better open with a damn good breakfast. Then, you can walk up Clark Street and take in all the businesses sitting in an area that used to be a cherry orchard. Swedish immigrants began to move to Andersonville after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, on what was originally Green Bay Road. More recently, a number of Middle Eastern and North African businesses moved into the area, including Pars Persian Store, Cafe Lebanon, and my longtime favorite comfort food spot in town, Icosium Kafe, an Algerian crepe place that closed suddenly in late 2013. There was no warning the place was closing. The owner simply locked the door and put up a handwritten sign that said, “I’m done with crepes.”

In a strange way, that exit said something about the small-community feel of the neighborhood. The owner simply trusted that his neighbors would understand. He wanted to do something else. That’s it and that’s all.

And while the neighborhood has seen large chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s crowd into the area, the main drag along Clark retains an impressive number of local businesses. One of the cornerstones of the community remains its wonderful bookstore, Women and Children First, a feminist bookstore that was recently bought by two staff members from the original owners.

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The store leans heavily, though by no means exclusively, on books by female authors, but they also have an impressive collection of children’s literature (including a reading area) as well as a large collection of fiction and non-fiction by gay and lesbian authors. Like a lot of great bookstores, they are also a great resource for community information and resources for everything from social justice to affordable medical care.

Just up the street from the bookstore is Kopi Cafe, a small coffee shop and restaurant that serves a wide selection of savory and sweet snacks, and doubles as a small clothing boutique and travel bookstore. The guidebooks line the walls, and if you’re like me and always thinking about where you can go next, it’s nice to walk away from your eggs and spiced tea and flip through the pages of a guide to Nepal.

Of course, if you have this in front of you, you will never get up:

Behold: the greatest carrot cake in the world.

Kopi Cafe was my main hangout when I lived in the neighborhood. It’s friendly, comforting, and serves the best carrot cake I’ve ever had in my life. The truth is, there are a lot of reasons I come back to Andersonville, but this is one of the big ones. I don’t think I had a slice of this every single time I came into the cafe, but it was pretty close. I probably wrote a couple hundred pages of drivel while fueled up on this cake, and nine years later, it still tastes just as good.

I’d already told Lindsay about the cake, and how regular a habit it was to for me to come back and sit in this traveler’s cafe while I prepare to spring out in to my next orbit. We were eating and reading, but I kept noticing the conversation at the next table. I wasn’t eavesdropping at first, I just picked up snippets of conversation because I was quiet and the guy at the next table, while not talking loud, was audible enough for me to hear.

He was heartbroken. He was out of a relationship and devastated by it and was talking in a  calm manner to a friend, trying to wrap his head around the strange turn his life had taken, and the odd sensation of finding yourself in pieces and not knowing which ones to pick up first. It was jarring to me. Nine years earlier, I sat at this same table against this same window and had those same conversations with any friend who would sit still long enough to listen. Everything I thought was certain was suddenly gone, and I talked and talked to try and figure my way through the maze.

I listened to the guy talk, and the conversation was so familiar. The fear of certain dates  and the memories they would bring up. The loss of appetite. The confusion over how to talk to mutual friends. The inability to listen to favorite old records, or even hear familiar phrases that you said to your ex, or that they said to you. I just sat there thinking, “I know. I know.” And I wanted to tell him he’d be okay. That he’s doing all the right things. I wanted to tell him to talk to people. Exercise. Take care of yourself and eat well. Make yourself vulnerable and admit you have no idea what your life is supposed to look like, that everything you were sure about is gone, because just saying that puts the ground back under your feet.

I didn’t say anything to him, but I did pay for his food. I told the waitress to put it on my bill, and I asked her to tell him that I heard what he was talking about, that I’ve been exactly where he is now, and that I’m hoping for the best for him.

I could have been talking to myself, nine years ago. It gets better, is what I wanted to tell that guy.

Because it’s true. It really does.

*     *     *

Svea Cafe is located at 5236 N. Clark Street. Don’t forget to look at the murals.

Women and Children First is right across the street at 5233 N. Clark Street. They have a website here.

Kopi Cafe is one block north at 5317 N. Clark Street. The carrot cake will change your life.

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A Tour of the Historic Chicago Theater with Drew Perfilio

I’m thinking, Sinatra stood here.

I’m also thinking, I can’t believe I used to work here.

Drew Perfilio walks me across the stage. Eleven years ago, we both worked out in the lobby, tending bar. It was a pickup gig for me at times, a full-time gig at others. At one point in this city, it was one of four jobs I was working while I tried to make ends meet. I left the theater after a while, and eventually Chicago. Drew stuck with both. Now, he’s in charge of every bartender, barback, and cocktail server in the joint, and responsible for every drop of liquor that they pour.

Which is why he can take me on the stage when the theater is dark.

“I love my job.” he tells me. And that’s important, because the hours in a gig like his are brutal. When the season is hopping, fourteen and fifteen hour days are normal. He’s letting me stay in his apartment, and I watch him drag himself home at two in the morning more than once during my visit. His wife and son are already in bed when he gets back, so we sit up and do what we’ve always done in the fifteen years we’ve known each other. We talk. We talk music. We talk philosophy. We talk poetry. We’re like Plato and Aristotle, only dumber.

Drew Perfilio, who is so punk rock he prefers his own earlier work.

A love of the music and the shows is one of the things that keeps Drew committed. But he also loves the theater itself, which has been a cornerstone of Chicago’s busy State Street since 1921, when it was constructed as a high end movie palace for the Balaban and Katz Theater Company. It quickly became one of the most popular venues in Chicago, not just for the novelty of motion pictures, but because it was one of the few buildings in the city where the public could experience air conditioning during the hot summer months.

The theater also featured live music and stage shows, and became well known for the opulence of its interior, which included murals across the ceilings, its gorgeous staircase, Tiffany glass, and two fountains near the edges of the stage which would actively pour water until theater owners noticed that everyone who sat near them had to constantly dart out to use the restrooms, at which point they were turned off.

This staircase was modeled on a staircase on the Titanic.

In the 70’s, the theater fell into disrepair. Attempts to keep it running as a movie house failed. Before it was shuttered for repairs in 1985, it was reduced to showing second-run films to an audience that included drunks sleeping in the aisles and prostitutes taking care of business with customers in the shadows.

It could have gone by the wayside, but a massive development project by a preservation group saved the old dame and converted it back to its 1930’s grandeur. On September 8, 1986, Mayor Harold Washington flipped the switch to turn the lights back on. Two days later, the theater officially re-opened with a performance by Frank Sinatra.

Today, the theater focuses on stage shows by performers ranging from Jerry Seinfeld to Arcade Fire, as well as older musicals like A Chorus Line, Cabaret and, of course, Chicago.

The view from the stage. The suspended balcony provides a good view from any seat.

In 2013, the theater hosted a tribute to one of my favorite writers: the film critic Roger Ebert. For two and a half hours, friends came to offer tributes to the great storyteller who had lost his battle with cancer that April. Ebert and his one-time nemesis turned longtime friend Gene Siskel used to watch films slated for their famous show right here in the balcony. Today, a plaque dedicated to Ebert resides in front of the main entrance, while directly across the street sits the Gene Siskel Film Center, dedicated to the equally brilliant critic who passed away in 1998.

The history of the performers is written on the walls. Drew walks me down below the stage, past the various green rooms and communal dining areas for the performers. Murals of the shows are painted in blocks the walls, then criss-crossed with the signatures of the cast. At the top of one staircase, there is a door painted purple and dedicated to Prince, adorned with the symbol he used for a name during his “The Artist Formerly Known As…” phase.

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 The Prince Door. Carol Burnett’s animated likeness and signature are just to the right.

None of these are views I could have had eleven years ago. Until Drew gave me the tour, I’d never seen the lower levels of the theater, never even came close to the stage. I think I’d been inside the main auditorium just once.

Now, I could take in the suspended balcony, which so panicked the public that the theater owners placed thousands of pounds of sandbags in the seats and had newsmen photograph it so audiences would be assured they wouldn’t plunge to their deaths. Likewise, I could take in the murals on the high ceilings, the gold leaf and the ornate designs carved into the stone. I could stand on the stage where Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra had their reunion. I could sit in the box seats where the rich and powerful of Chicago have sat for 95 years.

Drew gets to see this every day, but the beauty of it isn’t lost on him. He talks through every arc of the building’s history, right down to what kind of wiring was installed when he poured his first drink on his first shift as an entry-level bartender. He can tell you the ways the different shows will be staged and which shows are going to do what kind of business. It’s his job to know this stuff, of course. But you can sense the thrill he gets from being part of it.

It’s been a decade since we worked here together, at the same level. I never would have considered moving upward, but that’s the difference between us. Drew is a Chicagoan, and there are few buildings more synonymous with the city than the theater that bears its name. For him to have a substantial role in making it run is a point of pride, and it should be. His story speaks to the work ethic embodied within the city’s DNA. By simply doing his job well, he’s become a part of this theater’s history—and by extension, of the city itself.

The Chicago Theater is located at 175 N. State Street in downtown Chicago. Their website can be found here, and has a list of upcoming shows.

The Road Ahead

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Taking in the sunset with my brother in our hometown. (photo: Justin Johnson)

When I moved to New Orleans a little over nine years ago, I started almost from scratch. No job. No car. Nowhere to live. Hardly knew anyone. Over nearly a decade, I built a solid community, became part of the city, and for the last five years held the best (and best paying) job I’ve ever had, working as a tour guide. I lived in a great place by the Mississippi River in a truly extraordinary neighborhood.

And now, I’m on the road. Everything I own is on my back or in a storage unit. I’m traveling, and I have no endpoint in sight for my travels. I’m going to keep going until I’m done and I’m going to write about it as I go. And hopefully, I’ll figure out how to make a living doing just that.

That’s an abrupt shift to make when you’re almost 40, but here I go.

A lot of the travel blogs I’ve seen (the ones that seem to get written up anyway), center around authors who have launched out of another life that they viewed as a dead end. There’s a lot of this going around, a theme of, I walked away from my dead-end, soul-sucking corporate job to live my dreams and travel the world.

Well, power to ‘em.

But that’s not what this is. I had a great life in New Orleans. Great job and great friends. My reasons for going on the road aren’t about escape (not anymore, anyway). It’s difficult to articulate, but I think it comes down to this idea: This is what I believe I’m supposed to be doing right now.

That’s a little embarrassing to admit, and more than a little frightening, too. The conventional wisdom is that you aren’t supposed to start your life over when you’re almost 40—not unless you’re deeply unhappy. Which, as noted, I wasn’t.

At this point, being happy with where I lived and with my work, I was supposed to start thinking about settling down. Thinking about the future. And I did. Really. I spent the last two and a half years paying off all my debt, from student loans to old taxes. I got my teeth fixed and visited doctors and changed my exercising habits. I put away some savings. And most importantly, I started going to therapy to process grief I’d been storing in the hidden corners of myself for as long as I knew how to do that.

I wasn’t even certain why I was doing all of this while I was doing it. I simply felt I had to clear the decks, get my past cleaned up before I could think about my future. There was even the thought that I might buy a house at the end of this. I held onto that fantasy for nearly a year.

And then, over the last year, a shift came. I began to look at the two constants of my adult life—writing and motion—and wondered if I could put them together. I never wanted to be a full-time writer before. Mostly, because I didn’t want my passion to become my job, something I had to slog through. That’s what I told everyone.

Liar.

The real reason I didn’t want to try working full-time as a writer is because I didn’t believe I could do it. Not because I didn’t think my writing was good enough, but because I didn’t think I had what it would take to follow through. To keep submitting articles after a hundred rejections. To keep knocking on doors that have been shut in my face. To keep doing the business end of being an artist—the humiliating grind that no one talks about. I have friends who do it. I’ve always admired their persistence. I always believed I was missing something that they had. Part of me still believes it.

If I am most susceptible to one of the seven deadly sins, it is sloth. I have always been a procrastinator. I have frequently done just enough to get by. That’s not going to do now. This is a walk to the deep end of the water and a leap of faith that I can swim when I have no other choice.

I will be traveling for the foreseeable future and I will document it. I will hope to earn enough money while doing it to stay on the road. I have enough to get started, my overhead is low, and it is entirely possible that this is the best chance I will ever have to do this.

There will be a lot of changes coming. A new website, for starters. Those of you reading this will also see updates about my work appearing elsewhere, starting on Monday. In January, I will head to South America, where I hope to travel for the bulk of 2017. What comes next is still to be determined.

I’m on the road, looking forward, telling myself I can do this. That this is what I do. That it’s what I’ve always done.

 

Bootlegger’s Paradise: A Tour of the Hiram Walker Distillery—Windsor, Ontario

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Today, it seems like madness. But it is worth noting that there were actually good reasons why alcohol use needed to be curbed in the United States in 1919. With poor oversight allowing for the production of tainted beverages that blinded and killed people, and with an epidemic of alcoholism plaguing the country, the Temperance Movement’s claims that banning beer, wine and spirits would help roll back the downward trend of lawful society seemed, on the surface, to be a good idea: An admittedly extreme reaction to what many saw as an extreme evil. But human nature won out in Prohibition. Even people who didn’t drink didn’t like being told they couldn’t. The result was the booze filled economic explosion we know as the Roaring Twenties, which pushed organized crime into the mainstream, and largely paved the way for many smuggling operations run in the United States since.

Perhaps no alcoholic beverage enjoyed a bigger boom during Prohibition than Canadian Whiskey, which didn’t even really have its own designation until the 1880’s when American whiskey manufacturers insisted that the country of origin be listed on the labels of spirits. An enterprising magnate from Detroit named Hiram Walker decided to use this to his advantage. Walker had been selling whiskey for over two decades out of a distillery that was so successful that Walker would eventually create a company town for its upkeep, which was called Walkerville. His most successful brand was called “Club” whiskey. When the law insisting on the country of origin being on the label went through, Walker decided to make his whiskey a symbol of national identity. The “Club” brand became known as “Canadian Club,” and Walker’s sales jumped over 25 percent.

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At the Hiram Walker Distillery’s tasting room.

Canada experienced its own flirtation with Prohibition, but unlike in the United States, implementation was largely left up to the provinces. And while Prince Edward Island held onto their dry status until after World War II, every other province repealed it before the United States did.

More importantly, the Canadian government left the export market open. As long as the booze was going somewhere else, distilleries and breweries could manufacture as much as they pleased. And since there was a massive, thirsty market just to the south, business began to boom. Especially for the Hiram Walker Distillery, which sits on a riverbank in Windsor, Ontario.

Today, you can take a tour of the distillery, complete with samples of the local product. At one point, the tour will take you down to the water, where the bootleggers plied their trade, hauling freshly minted cargoes of booze across the river. Their destination was the city of Detroit, less than a mile away.

There were a million routes for smugglers to take during Prohibition. Along the seaboards of the United States, one ship after another, loaded with booze, sat at anchor at the three-mile limit that left them in international waters. Small boats would simply make their way out, load up with a hefty cargo of alcohol, and sail it in covertly. The supply ships became known as Rum Row, and spawned a special species of smugglers (or “Rumrunners”)who counted among their numbers Gertrude Lythgoe (“The Queen of the Bahamas”) and Bill “The Real” McCoy.

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Legendary smugglers Bill McCoy (R) and Gertrude Lythgoe (L) relaxing aboard McCoy’s boat (photo: Hiram Walker Distillery).

Canada was the other smuggler’s paradise. High quality booze was being manufactured legally, and the national border was an impossible to patrol 4,000 miles long. One customer in particular saw the advantage of buying his liquor from the large distillery in nearby Windsor, Ontario, rather than hauling it across the country from New Jersey or New Orleans. His name was Al Capone.

The one mile trip across the Detroit River was a fairly simple one for the fast boats that plied the waters. Except in winter, when the river would freeze over. At that point, Model-T Fords, made in Detroit, would be loaded up with alcohol and skate their way, perilously, to the other shore, where they would be picked up and trafficked out of the city by runners for Capone’s crime syndicate. But the city limits were also the limits of the Chicago gangster’s direct control. The booze business within Detroit was controlled by a group known as the Purple Gang, a notoriously vicious outfit who controlled all vice in the city. They would ferry the Canadian Whiskey to the edge of town, hand it over to Capone’s men, and thus retain control of Detroit without any involvement from Chicago.

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View of Detroit from the Hiram Walker Distillery. An easy run for smugglers as long as they didn’t run afoul of the Purple Gang.

The perils of the bootlegging business also changed the design of the bottles. The distinct longneck style of bottle used by Canadian Club today (and before Prohibition, as well) was too delicate, with the long neck likely to break on a bumpy trip over the roads or the waters. This design was replaced by a flat, more compact bottle that could be easily wrapped in paper and stacked, allowing for greater volume to be smuggled. More importantly, the flat bottle had less air in it, which meant it would sink if thrown overboard during a pursuit by law enforcement, rather than float around long enough to be picked up as evidence.

Some of the most efficient vehicles for smuggling booze during the era were fishing boats, which would wrap the cargo in their nets. If they were being pursued by the police, they could simply push the nets overboard, with the booze sinking to the bottom, along with a marker buoy wrapped in sugar or salt. When the sugar (or salt) dissolved, the buoy would float to the surface, and the bootleggers would go back and haul up the nets to retrieve their cargo.

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Designed for smuggling, the new, easier to transport bottle (left) replaced the more classic Canadian Club bottle design during Prohibition.

Trafficking smuggled goods also depends on information. And the smugglers developed a code for tracking shipments. Telegraphs written in jargon and code letters, would name the time and place for shipments to be dropped off. In one of the more ingenious uses of public architecture for private enterprise, Al Capone paid for the restoration of a church in Windsor, including a large cross powered with electric light. The cross was used as a signal for the smuggling boats, notifying them if there was any law enforcement patrolling the waters at night.

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Coded telegraph with details for a drop.

There’s a certain fiendish pride the folks at the Canadian Club Brand Center take in their role during Prohibition. Surely, the folks at the distillery who watched the small, fast boats load themselves down with their product knew exactly where they were going, and knew they were fueling the economics of organized crime across the water. But the utter ridiculousness of Prohibition, our distance from the era, and the ingeniousness of the smugglers lends a certain charm to the distillery’s role. Particularly during the Depression, when their entirely legal sales to entirely illegal enterprises kept the city of Windsor afloat, and plenty of workers from having to fall into bread lines.

But it’s the smuggling of today that takes some of the shine off of the apple. As you’re told on the tour, the Windsor-Detroit corridor remains a major artery for smuggling today. Only now, the cargo seems less charming: Drugs, weapons, human beings. Maybe that’s the charm of looking back on Prohibition today. The crime it spawned seems less venal in the light of the vices they were feeding, vices that seem so tame compared to the mad world we live in today.

Then again, for those who lived through Prohibition, it must have seemed the world had gone just as mad. A nation of law-breaking drunkards, lurching forward in an opulent stupor, just trying to find the next illegal drink.

(Photo: Hiram Walker Distillery)

The Hiram Walker Distillery’s Canadian Club Brand Center is located at 2072 Riverside East in Windsor, Ontario. Tours are available Wednesday through Sunday from April to December, and on Friday through Sunday from January through March. The tour costs 12 Canadian Dollars. The full schedule can be found here.

Walt’s Fish Market—Sarasota, Florida

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Nearly a century of family history goes into this Sarasota classic, evocative of another era a rapidly changing state.

It’s a touchstone of the city, and a link to what this city, and what this state, used to look and feel like. In a town of transients, transplants and snowbirds, Walt’s Fish Market is that rarest of Florida institutions: An old school place that’s been in the same family for four generations.

The history of the family that runs it is a story it would be hard to imagine outside of Sarasota. The Ringling Brothers Circus casts a big shadow here, as the town served as their winter headquarters. When the circus hit town in 1918, they had a young Swede in their ranks who’d fled his home country to join them. Claus Wallin, the young Swede, settled in Sarasota and became a commercial fisherman.

Claus passed his fishing knowledge down to his son Walt, who sold fish on Whitaker Bayou, then opened his own market after returning from World War II. Eventually, it began serving food as a restaurant, and it’s remained a family establishment ever since. Walt passed the business to his sons Walt Jr. and Tom, who in turn passed it to Tom’s son Brett, who runs it today while continuing to fish and crab the waters around the city.

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Fresh catch.

While Sarasota today trades on that history of being “Circus City” (there’s a museum, and even a brewery that goes by that name now), the commercial fishing industry has grown harder to navigate. And yet, Walt’s Fish Market on South Tamiami Trail continues to stay deeply connected to the nearby waters. As you go along the counter, you’ll see a few items imported from elsewhere. But if they tell you the seafood came from Florida, you can be sure it was swimming that morning, and that the owner can tell you the name of the person who caught it.

Like the business he owns, Brett Wallin is something of an anomaly in a city defined by rapid development. He’s kept a family business alive by treating the people who work there like family. (Edible Sarasota ran an excellent piece on Brett and the way he runs the business, which you can read here.)

Throughout my life, Walt’s is one of the handful of places img_3974whose consistent presence has kept this strip of South Tamiami surprisingly familiar in the midst of the city’s population explosion. Along with other local institutions like Demetrios Restaurant and Pizza (with that same sign all these years later), Karl Ehmer’s Meats (Home of the Original Turducken!) and Fogt’s Gulf Coast Music Center (your place for rentals and repairs!), Walt’s is a reminder of a Florida that many people looking to make a buck off the landscape seem all too ready to forget.

In 2012, Brett Wallin oversaw a redesign of both the space and the menu, and the results were excellent. The place still has the feel of Old Florida. It’s kitschy without being ironic. Stuffed fish and wooden ship wheels adorn the walls. The tables are lacquered wood and the bar (Chickee Hut) has a tiki theme and classic cocktails suited to the climate. But this isn’t a design for the newcomers so much as it is a salute to what always made the area what it was. There are photographs of old fishermen who kept the market stocked, there as much in reverence as in remembrance. For anyone who grew up here, the place feels like home.

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Mussels in garlic butter and white wine. Classic.

The menu in the restaurant and the offerings in the market remain true to that old spirit. Appetizers like steamed mussels, conch fritters and hush puppies. Sandwiches of grouper and mangrove snapper. Unbelievably delicious stone crab claws, which were available in bulk when I was a kid and now sell for up to 35 dollars a pound. And most importantly, the famous smoked mullet spread, which my family demanded I bring home for a Thanksgiving appetizer.

I know this place. I’ve seen gilded stores up the street like Lechmere and Circuit City come and go. I saw the Sarasota Quay as it was built, and I saw it as it was demolished. I watched the Ringing Towers come down a Ritz Carlton fill its place. My elementary school, Phillippi Shores, now sits about 300 yards from where it was when I played touch football on the playground. My parents even had a restaurant over here, where my mother was the chef. The door was just under a mile from Walt’s.

Walt’s has been at its current location since 1977, one year before I was born. The restaurant my parents owned no longer exists. My old neighborhood is barely recognizable. But every year I drive down this road and see that Walt’s is still there, and I’m thankful for that.

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Walt’s Fish Market and Restaurant is located at 4144 South Tamiami Trail in Sarasota. They have different hours for different parts. The fish market is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, except Sunday when they open at 10. The restaurant opens at 11 a.m. every day, as does the bar. The restaurant closes at 10 p.m. and the bar closes at 11 p.m.

Walt’s has a website here.

Eating Oaxaca

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The crowded food stalls in 20 de November Market in Oaxaca.

The steam coming from the grills is the first thing you notice, even before the smells reach you. In the front of Oaxaca’s 20 de Noviembre Market, right where it connects with the Benito Juarez Market, there are food stalls everywhere. For the shoppers. For the vendors. For the tourists, if they get the urge. Most of the stalls are sit down counter restaurants. But in a small section on the side are a row of grills and stands with beef and chorizo laid out on slanted tables, with thin loops of tripe hanging just above. You tell them what kind of meat you want, and the butcher/grillmaster cuts it, cooks it, and brings it to your table in a basket with tortillas. Meanwhile, other vendors make their way around with nopales (diced stewed cactus), green onion, red and green chiles and other condiments.

And this is just the market.

From around the world, people come to Oaxaca for the food. They come for the markets that draw from the incredibly rich countryside. Because of the shifts in altitude, Oaxaca has a huge number of climate regions, and a wide variety of the best of the best produce grows down here as a result. In a country renowned for its cuisine, Oaxaca stands tall. It’s the place that gave us the drink of the gods (mezcal), the food of the gods (chocolate), and the sauce of the gods (molé).

Even the pests become food here. A popular snack, sold everywhere from markets to football matches, is a bag of chapulines—grasshoppers, toasted and spiced.

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Chapulines. They taste better than they have any right to.

The cuisine is a rich mix of dishes that pull from the multiple indigenous groups that live in the area, including the Zapotec and Mixtec. The cuisine the region is most known for is molé, including the so-called “Seven molés of Oaxaca”: Verde, amarillo, colorado, coloradito, negro, chichilo, and manchamanteles (which literally means “tablecloth stainer”). Each of these sauces is served over some kind of meat, be it turkey, chicken, beef or pork (though each does have a meat it is most traditionally served with). They vary in complexity, from molés that can be prepared in a couple of hours to ones that might take a week or two to complete.

One of the best known, and best appreciated, is molé negro. Made from a variety of crushed and ground spices, seeds and nuts, multiple chiles, and Mexican chocolate (which helps give the sauce its unique color), molé negro is an exceedingly complex sauce and, as a result, often saved for special occasions. The best I had in Oaxaca City were at the well known staples Los Danzantes and La Biznaga, and a less well known breakfast spot El Escapulario.

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Molé negro.

The region’s drink of choice, mezcal, is widely available in a staggering number of varieties. Sit down at some restaurants, most bars, and virtually any residence in the city of Oaxaca and someone will pour you a shot as a welcome. At many of the bars—or mezcalerias that specialize in the eponymous drink—the menu can be overwhelming. Distilleries are listed, along with the type of agave they use, and whether it is joven (young—a couple months of aging), reposado (aged from 2-9 months), añejo (aged at least a year) or some other category.

In the United States, mezcal long suffered a reputation as an inferior drink. This was due to the poor quality of what was being imported, as well as the extreme popularity of its cousin, tequila (which is actually a type of mezcal). In the last couple decades, however, the drink has experienced a rebirth outside of Mexico (it never really went out of fashion in Oaxaca). Smoky and earthy, and containing a flavor profile that varies greatly with the type of agave and the type of preparation, good mezcal is probably best compared to good scotch. Delicious, distinct, strong, and highly complex. Tequila shots are ubiquitous in the countries where it is exported. Mezcal is never, ever, EVER meant to be shot. You sip it with all the care of a hummingbird.

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Sipping mescal with Roberto Bolano at Restaurante Tobizache.

But my personal favorite treat from Oaxaca is the chocolate.

This is not the type of chocolate normally associated with Switzerland or Belgium. The chocolate of Oaxaca is rarely used for pastries or confections, but more for baking, as an ingredient in sauces and, in particular, for hot chocolate.

Is there any drink more comforting than hot chocolate? In Oaxaca, it’s available in any coffee shop, and not merely as a dessert. It is perfectly acceptable to drink it for breakfast, proving that Oaxaca is a land of elevated culture and taste. On ordering you will be asked if you prefer it with milk or water. Milk is rarely drunk alone in Oaxaca, so the quality is not what you might be used to if you live in a dairy region. But it works just fine for hot chocolate. The drink will then be spiced with cinnamon and, occasionally, with chile. In the cool climate of the mountains, it’s unbelievably refreshing.

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This man spends all day dealing with chocolate, which makes him smarter than you.

I haven’t mentioned the service, which from restaurants to bars to mezcalerias to coffee shops is uniformly superb. Hospitality, as demonstrated by those welcoming shots of mezcal, is of high importance here. There seems to be little secrecy about what makes the food great, which makes sense. The cuisine here is defined by quality ingredients, but also by meticulous attention to detail that consumes a great deal of time. Whatever secrets are held by those who prepare it are deeply encoded in the method of preparation. You could probably get a full list of ingredients of a family secret molé sauce and still have no idea which step to open with. The secrets are safe, and the land is abundant. These are secrets that are safe to share.

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El Escapulario is located at Calle Manuel Garcia Vigil 617 . They have a Facebook page here.

La Biznaga is right down the street is Calle Manuel Garcia Vigil 512. They have a Facebook page here.

Los Danzantes is across from the Santo Domingo cathedral, at Macedonio Alcalá 403. Their website is here.

Restaurante Tobizache is located at Calle 5 de Mayo 311. They have a website here.

Café Arábico is located at Macedonio Alcalá 802.

Last Days of an Exile: Mexico City’s Leon Trotsky Museum

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Entrance to the Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Forget the politics. Look at the bullet holes.

Fist sized chunks of stone are ripped from the bedroom wall. The window facing it has shutters of reinforced steel, set in place after this assassination attempt on the life of Leon Trotsky failed. Look at the guard tower over the courtyard. Look around the windowless kitchen. Note the lack of light at the man’s writing desk. Everything about the house itself says keep out. Says, go away. Says, last stand.

It’s not a home. It’s a prison. And that’s what it was supposed to be.

Leon Trotsky arrived in Mexico in 1937, a step ahead of Josef Stalin’s agents. He’d been sentenced to death in absentia by a kangaroo court assembled in Moscow a few months earlier. He’d lived much of his life in exile. Siberia following his first prison sentence. London and Vienna in the time of the Tsars. Switzerland at the outbreak of the Great War. And following his banishment by Stalin in 1929, a constant state of movement from Turkey to France to Norway. In 1936, around the time of his death sentence, Norway kicked him out, likely due to economic pressure from the Soviet Union.

After interceding on Trotsky’s behalf with the Mexican government, the painter Diego Rivera invited Trotsky to live with him in Frida Kahlo’s La Casa Azul. The home was fortified with bricked-in windows and guards, and Trotsky and his wife Natalia moved into the home for two years, before an affair with Kahlo and arguments with Rivera led to a permanent split. Trotsky moved a few blocks away to the home where he would spend his final months. In August, 1940, he was assassinated by an undercover Soviet agent who was serving as his butler.

The story is fairly familiar for anyone who has studied either the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the life of Trotsky, or the lives of Rivera and Kahlo. What is not familiar, and what needs to be seen, is the way they lived out those final months.

The home has become a museum of Trotsky’s life. Pictures adorn the walls of him in his youth, leading the army that would secure the new republic. A master of organization, Trotsky virtually formed the Red Army while serving as the right hand of Vladimir Lenin. After Lenin’s death, Trotsky lost a power struggle to Stalin, and was forced out. First from his position. Then out of the Communist Party. And finally, out of the country itself.

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Bullet holes in the bedroom wall.

By the time of his arrival at the home of Rivera and Kahlo, his situation had gone from untenable to tragic. Stalin’s forces murdered his sons. They murdered his ex-wife. They murdered nearly everyone who had stayed loyal to Trotsky over a decade earlier, all of whom had “apologized” for their loyalty in an effort to save themselves and their families from punishment.

Trotsky’s legacy, like the legacy of most revolutionaries, is a complicated one. There is something supremely human in his desire to see poverty eliminated, to see democracy as a sustaining force for social movements, and his fierce opposition to totalitarianism. And yet, there is his role in setting up a one-party system that did not tolerate dissent, that became increasingly repressive, and that would eventually hunt him down and murder him and nearly everyone close to him. He took the blame for some things that were not entirely his fault, such as the disastrous Soviet-Polish War, and he was written completely out of the history books by Stalin as the purges of the nation extended.

In a sense, Trotsky benefits in historical perspective from comparison to Stalin. Perhaps things would have gone more successfully in the Soviet Union under his leadership, and perhaps they would have fallen apart. Trotsky did participate in the suppression of uprisings during the early years after the October Revolution, including the Red Terror. Perhaps he would have become a repressive dictator. Or, perhaps he would have become a voice of moderation, figuring a way to make a smooth transition to some kind of democratic socialism. Every hypothetical seems possible.

But no matter your opinion of the Leon Trotsky who fought for that revolution in the early years, it’s impossible not to have empathy for the Leon Trotsky who ended his days here in Mexico City, plagued with high blood pressure, surrounded by guards, and under constant threat of assassination. It’s hard to imagine the terror of that first assassination attempt, with a machine gun firing the room he shared with his wife, an attack that would leave his grandson wounded and one of his guards dead.

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Trotsky’s study, where he continued working until his assassination. The dictaphone sits under the far corner of the table.

He lived a quiet life here, and would probably be a more obscure figure today if Stalin had simply left him alone. Then again, Stalin didn’t leave anyone alone. The Trotskyites who threw themselves on his mercy were eventually murdered anyway. In a sense, Trotsky must have known he was a dead man once he went into exile. And there is something admirable about his desire to refine his theories and continue to attack Stalin in spite of the danger, writing at his desk and reciting ideas in his Edison Dictating Machine, which would then be typed out by two secretaries working in the next room. Whatever else you can say about him, the man went down fighting.

The assassination of Leon Trotsky took place on August 20, 1940, when Soviet agent Ramon Mercader, who had been posing as Trotsky’s butler, struck him on the head with an ice axe. The blow was fatal, but Trotsky did not die immediately. One of his final acts was to order his guards not to kill Mercader where he stood, so that he could be made to stand trial. Trotsky died the next day in a hospital and is buried in the courtyard alongside Natalia.

Today, his grandson Esteban, who was wounded in the unsuccessful assassination attempt at the house, helps to run the museum dedicated to Leon Trotsky’s life and death. Starting in 1987, Trotsky’s books became available in Russia, and he was formally rehabilitated by the government in 2001. And his museum serves another function today for people like the man who occupied it: Providing assistance to political refugees. That last part would surely have made an old revolutionary proud.

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The Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky is located in the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City at Rio Churubusco 410. It is open from 10:00 am to 5:00 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday. Entrance is 40 pesos. They have a website here.